NATICK, Mass. (April 30, 2015) – More than 150 students, from 17 colleges and universities and three service academies, were on hand at the Natick Soldier Systems Center, April 13-17, as they partook in the 2015 Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, University and Service Academy Design Challenge.
The AFRL is a scientific research organization operated by the U.S. Air Force Materiel Command dedicated to leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable aerospace warfighting technologies.
The laboratory, formed in 1997, has conducted numerous experiments and technical demonstrations in conjunction with a wide range of agencies to include the Department of Defense.
The AFRL design challenge makes great efforts to deliver creative solutions to challenging problems, and presents an exciting opportunity for students to exercise their talents and contribute to the nation’s defense.
This year’s challenge asked students to design and prototype a heat stress prevention kit that could safely, rapidly and effectively remove undesired heat away from body exteriors during special operations in hot and humid environments.
The biggest constraint students had to work with was the fact that in hot environments, it is often difficult for the warfighter to wear heavy protective equipment.
The challenge also called for the kit to be rapidly deployable, self contained, and portable.
In September, students were given their mission, and they have had the last seven months to develop their ideas and create their prototypes.
Due to the nature of this year’s challenge, it was only fitting that students’ prototypes would be tested in the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center’s Doriot Climatic Chambers.
The chambers are a one-of-a-kind facility that can reproduce environmental conditions that occur anywhere in the world, producing tropic wind with temperatures as high as 165 degrees, and arctic wind with temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees.
The chambers can also simulate rain up to four inches per hour and wind up to 40 miles per hour.
Through these extreme conditions, testing of physical properties of military equipment, as well as testing of physiology and adaptations of human subjects, can be performed here.
Josh Osborne, an aerospace engineer and AFRL design competition program manager, said the challenge is unique because it can present a solution to a real-world need for Air Force Special Operations.
“The overall purpose is to get a system [or] an idea together to solve the problem,” Osborne said. “At the same time, grow the future engineers that are ready to graduate and get them interested.”
Osborne said that the students also had to consider the dimensions of the system.
“When a special operations person takes something with them, they have to think, ‘Would I leave a (meal, ready-to-eat) behind to take this?’ So it has to be important enough for them to bring it to begin with, so weight and size is a big thing,” Osborne said.
After several months of working on their innovations, the challengers tested their prototypes in the chambers.
Test subjects donned the students’ prototypes and walked on a treadmill for one hour at an approximate pace of three miles per hour with temperatures nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit with 40-percent relative humidity.
Osborne said throughout the test, subjects’ heart rates and skin temperatures were monitored.
Cadet Ioannis Wallingford, a senior at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, said he is proud of the work his team has done.
“It feels great; it’s something that actually touches me pretty deep,” Wallingford said.
Wallingford said that during cadet basic training, a classmate of his died due to a heat-related incident.
“I chose this capstone because this is something that would have decreased the risk for an incident like that to happen,” Wallingford said.
Wallingford described his teams’ prototype as sophisticated but also simple.
“Our system uses a passive system combined with an active system because we realized our passive system alone would not produce the cooling capacity required,” Wallingford said. “It creates a synergistic effect between the two.”
The winning university team of the AFRL challenge was not only awarded a symbolic “Wright Brothers” trophy, but the potential for a $100,000 grant to further develop their innovative idea.
The service academies were in a separate competition amongst themselves, where they had a chance to win bragging rights for the next year, as well as a trophy of their own.
Students also “win” by experiencing solutions to real-world problems, while getting an opportunity to contribute to products that could potentially help save the lives of our nation’s warfighters.